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Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History

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Sportswriting didn’t start with early 20th-century newspaper columnists talking fast and wearing hats with the word “press” written on the brim. The origins of the genre go way, way back past the historical warning track— hunting stories in pictorial form are on the walls of Lascaux caves. But “ancient” sportswritings aren’t just of archaeological interest; they have quietly helped shape modern sports narratives in everything from newspapers to novels to blogs.

The works selected here have either epitomized new genres of sportswriting or contributed to the cultural influences of sports or sportswriting. Let’s start with the grimmest of these writers, who composed a long song about famous people dying.

The Iliad (800-700 B.C.)
Yes, The Iliad. The Trojan War may start with a fight over a woman, but soon Homer’s very human heroes are more interested in fame than in love, revenge, or politics. At this point, the war essentially morphs into a sporting competition, and the body count rises exponentially, featuring Sports Center-esque highlight reels in which individual heroes get hot and do improbably balletic damage to the enemy team. The Michael Jordan of the Greeks is Achilles, and within two minutes of action in Book 19, he stabs Dryops, spears Demouchos, dashes brothers Dardanos and Laogonos to the ground, slices Tros (who has come to beg for mercy), hews Echeklos’s head off, and stabs Deukalion through the arm. All good competition, men from good families, worthy enough to be named in the epic but forever posterized in song.

When the battle stops for Patroclus’s funeral, we even get an actual athletic competition among the heroes. With the Olympics, the Ancient Greeks  invented sports as a form of war—official games designed to train citizens for battle. These links between sports and war live on in our imaginations and casual descriptive language (e.g., “Allen Iverson was a real warrior on the court” or “the epic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska”). In addition, Homer presents the first “best-ever” athletic debate: Achilles had to vanquish Hector to cement his permanent fame, just as Muhammad Ali had to outlast Joe Frazier.

David and Goliath (630-540 B.C.)
Who knew that this Bible story would provide Jim Nantz with an infinitely replicable metaphor for each year’s early round NCAA tournament games? The slingshot isn’t cutting edge technology now, but this is a story about the moral superiority of the underdog, how the plucky, brainy guy can strategically outwit the big lunk, and so forth. In other words, it’s a paradigm for almost every moralized sports story you’ve ever read—and most sports stories are heavily moralized.

Similar to NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, there is much more backstory in 1 Samuel than actual combat, but, like Goliath himself and sports stories in general, the confrontation has taken on outsized proportions in the collective imagination. So we can easily imagine Bob Costas’s voice-over for the five-minute NBC “up close and personal” biography of David before the network cuts to the actual battle: “David was born a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. But when he found that he could protect his flock from lions and bears, he dreamed one day he could challenge a formidable champion like Goliath” (cut to a clip of Goliath slaughtering enemies and then to a close up of him crossing his arms, slowly nodding at the camera, and looking satisfied).

The Legend of Robin Hood (ca. 1100-1200 A. D.)
The legend of Robin Hood centers around a spectacular athletic performance: Robin shoots an arrow that literally splits the center of his competitor’s arrow. Thanks to sports stories (or legends), leadership is often defined by athletic feats, and Robin, clearly the best athlete available in the 12th century, eventually gets to help Richard the Lionheart reclaim England. (Skipping over Thomas Malory and numerous other medieval and Renaissance tales about knights and tournaments—you’re welcome.)

The slight problem here—for those few who still touchingly insist on historical accuracy—is that Robin’s story, like many sports narratives, changes over time. In one of the first known accounts, “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin is just a bad-tempered local yeoman (commoner) who actually assaults Little John for defeating him in the archery contest. As the Robin Hood tales became a legend, the arrow was split, and the outlaw was rebranded as a national hero. These changes are an early, influential example of the game of historical telephone with which we exaggerate athletes’ heroism over time until the stories assume mythic proportions (e.g. Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” World Series home run). But how will this process work in the foreseeable future when we have visual evidence qualifying our claims (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith)?

Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)
Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is by far the most influential sports novel ever, though, ironically, it has few actual sports scenes. The three major—and quite memorable—ones involve a young Tom Brown, newly arrived at Rugby School, bravely standing against older and larger players at soccer; a slightly older Tom becoming a rugby legend and leader by outboxing school champion “Slogger” Williams; and Tom as a head boy and cricket captain putting in younger and weaker players to help them work on their confidence. In two out of the three crucial sports scenes, therefore, winning is much less important than character and team building. If you think this is didactic, you are correct, but mid-century public schoolmasters and their novelistic publicists were really in the business of training obedient players for another team—the one that ran the British Empire.

The novel invented the modern school story, thus paving the way for thousands of similarly moralized sports tales designed for teenage readers and young adult literature as a genre. Sports scenes in these works function as the applesauce in which authors hide the pill of the moral lesson, lauding teamwork and school spirit over individualism and praising conformity and, often explicitly, Christianity over being an adolescent (an emerging and troubling developmental category). Indeed, at the heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an all-knowing but distant schoolmaster and cleric, the real-life rugby head Thomas Arnold, who occasionally imparts pearls of wisdom to favored students but is often away on more important business, like, say, Dumbledore.

The Sun Also Rises (1926)
This is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about Americans traveling in Spain—very manly men. Except for the one who was wounded down there in the war. U.S. flag flying half-staff in Pamplona. You know what I mean. In sum, it’s a modernist literary masterpiece but also a moralized fable about masculinity and sports (in this case, bullfighting), and heavily influenced by works like Tom Brown. Indeed, sports-themed morality tales, in magazine, pulp, and novel form, saturated the American literary market for young male readers until the late 1950s.

But Hemingway was especially influential because he embodied the vision of manliness his writings promoted: he wrote in short sentences, went fishing and hunting, shot guns, got drunk, and punched other people. He became the first American literary author to be lionized as a famous sportsman, and the rugged outdoorsy persona of “Papa” Hemingway was a masculine icon for a generation of American men. But the author eventually couldn’t stand being “Papa” and shot himself.

Veeck—As in Wreck (1962)
In the 1960s and 1970s, a vanguard of nonfiction writers worked hard to relegate moralizing sports literature to the historical margins. One of the first and most influential of these works features that most modern of characters: a cheerfully unrepentant capitalist who revels as much in the business of baseball as in baseball itself. Imagine a great storyteller at the end of the bar who regales you for several hours on the ins and out of the baseball business: how to acquire teams, populate them with cheap but effective players, outwit other owners and the league office, placate mobsters, publicize games, and sell concessions. That’s Veeck—As in Wreck, essentially a transcription of maverick team owner Bill Veeck talking nonstop about the baseball business to Ed Linn, and no one could talk faster and longer than Veeck. In this book, we see the development of the modern sports team owner: self-publicizing, loud, and innovative, but always with an eye on the turnstile and additional revenue streams. And the book helped cement the ideal form for future sports blowhards (every single one of them less charming than Veeck): the as told to book.

The book starts out with the stunt that ensured Veeck’s fame—sending out 3’ 7” performer Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit in a major league game in 1951. But the man who also brought us exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition Night was never out of ideas, and Veeck details many other hilarious ones here (e.g. having players protest the crappy lighting at a competitor’s ballpark by sending them to the on-deck circle wearing miners helmets with lights shining). And as a bonus for romance literary types, the book features two sweet love stories: Veeck’s obsessive love for baseball and his pursuit of his second wife, Mary Frances Veeck, appropriately enough a publicist by trade, while he owned the St. Louis Browns. After they married, he proudly notes, she secretly set up an apartment for the family within St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park while he was still plotting how to get her to agree to move in there.

Beyond a Boundary (1963)
C.L.R. James’s memoir Beyond a Boundary is important mostly to historians who study the interrelations among sports and politics, and the first half of his book looks backward to the history of cricket in the 195y and early 20th centuries (and proposes cricketer W.G. Grace as the first modern international sports celebrity). A West Indian revolutionary and cricket writer—now that’s a combination—James also argues in Beyond a Boundary that works like Tom Brown helped inaugurate the British “games cult,” which the Empire then imported to its colonies, often in the form of introducing cricket and soccer in local schools. James then intriguingly claims that the games cult spread Britishness throughout the empire more efficiently and peacefully than did the exercise of direct political or military power. Loose analogy fans (and sportswriting is a graveyard of loose analogies) can consider how the global reach of American culture—Hollywood; rock, pop, and rap; and the NBA—now popularizes the United States even in areas where different political and religious views predominate.

In the second part of the book, James shows how he cleverly turned this ruling-class sports ideology on its head by helping to lead a groundswell in 1960 to get one of the West Indian national cricket team’s best players and revered leaders, Frank Worrell, to be named the team’s first black captain. By the usual meritocratic sports arguments, James argued, Worrell deserved to be captain, and the team’s subsequent success under Worrell’s captaincy served as a pointed comment not only about entrenched racism in sports but also about self-government within the empire. As James suspected, his cricket writings may have done as much for West Indian independence as his well-known political writings, including The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

Levels of the Game (1969) and David Foster Wallace’s Tennis Writings
It’s a twofer! John McPhee’s account of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is a great piece of writing, as are most things McPhee. For this book, McPhee had the two tennis players subsequently watch a videotape of the match and recount to him, in stunningly detailed fashion, their strategies during their contest. McPhee adds to the layering by detailing their cultural backgrounds; athletic training; and, interestingly, the long mutual acquaintance between them and their families. And he does all this without being intrusive or self-indulgent; he’s the Roger Angell of tennis (but not just tennis— see his brilliant profile of Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are”). Levels of the Game started out as a New Yorker essay, and this and other McPhee writings served as templates for many subsequent long-form, biographical profiles of sports figures published in magazines or on websites.

Some of the better recent McPhee-influenced sports profiles are from the late novelist David Foster Wallace. A talented junior tennis player himself, Wallace could also discuss tennis in fascinating detail, especially in justly celebrated essays on Roger Federer and journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and even in his endlessly annoying (and brilliant in its serial ability to annoy and then intrigue) novel Infinite Jest. But best of all is his essay on playing junior tennis in Illinois, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in which Wallace cannily analyzes an overlooked factor explaining why power tennis players essentially took over the pro game in the 1980s. While many other writers have related this shift to changes in racket technologies, Wallace focuses instead on the large-scale construction of court wind screens, which minimized wind bursts and hampered the ability of canny retrievers like himself to use the elements to lengthen points and get into the heads of the power players.

Ball Four (1970)
Let’s move on to another clever and insistent truth-teller, who, like Veeck, never lost his conversational fastball. Jim Bouton did not invent the “player writing an insider account of a year with a team” narrative. That honor goes to Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan and Green Bay Packer lineman and Vince Lombardi-worshipper Jerry Kramer. (Then journalists like George Plimpton, Roy Blount Jr., and David Halberstam got into the act.) But Ball Four is still the most influential of the genre; it exploded every cultural myth associated with heroic Tom Brown-influenced sports narratives, not to mention all assumptions about those narratives’ educational value. Baseball, for Bouton, was a war between venal management and immature, self-indulgent players, most famously embodied in the book by his memories of American icon Mickey Mantle, revealed as a drinker and voyeur (and therefore team leader).

Bouton is funny enough but, more important, brutally honest about everything. He casts himself as the team outsider, a weird knuckleballer who hangs out with the other nonconformists on the Seattle Pilots and even visits a protest on the Berkeley campus on an off day. Anyone who sits by himself in the locker room writing notes would never quite be treated by teammates as family (something about which Bouton is charmingly candid). But, irony alert, Bouton desperately wanted to be accepted by baseball people, including, or especially, Mantle. And unlike truth-tellers who have blown whistles and gone on to other public careers based on the perceived authenticity of their voice (e.g. John Kerry’s move from Vietnam protesting to politics), Bouton never left baseball and, in fact, kept making comebacks and attempting to rejoin his former New York Yankees family, even long after retirement. Bouton’s truth-telling was shocking in 1970; his obsessive need to belong to the baseball community is what poignantly resonates now.

The Boys of Summer (1972)
At some point in this period, baseball was crowned the most literary of U.S. sports, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer—the title, tellingly, coming from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem—epitomizes the successful marketing of such pretensions. Kahn had followed the mid-1950s Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and the first half of his memoir speeds with rhetorical wit and narrative verve over the various athletic and political hurdles confronted by this fascinating group of players. But then Kahn switches gears and interviews the team members 15 years later, and the nostalgia hangs like 1972 SoCal smog. This is not to deny the pleasures of reading Kahn. He is certainly a keen observer of people, and his chronicle of a year in the minor leagues, Good Enough to Dream (1985), is quite affecting. But like other 1970s innovators Chris Evert Lloyd and Led Zeppelin, Kahn was saddled with less-talented imitators and a resulting genre that often bored. A generation of Kahn-lite, big metaphor sports books followed: think of every single thing John Feinstein ever wrote, not to mention, to adapt Jeff Van Gundy’s phraseology about Phil Jackson, Big Chief Vague Metaphor Ken Burns and his Baseball documentary, which not surprisingly featured Kahn as one of the talking heads.

Kahn’s memoir also plumbs the father/son angle so often exploited in sports literature: fathers and sons don’t like or even understand each other unless they are talking about sports. This ubiquitous American stereotype—think Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, or Fences—has itself motivated a lot of bad historical writing on generational conflicts. Ironically, The Boys of Summer does have lovely and affecting sections featuring Kahn’s James Joyce-reading New York literary mother that would themselves form the core of a charming memoir if they weren’t weighed down by the book’s testosterone-fueled nostalgia.

1980s Boston Globe Sports Omnibus Columns
American newspaper sportswriters deserve a shout-out. Anyone can appreciate Red Smith’s pithy summary of the 1958 Green Bay Packers’ 4-10-1 season, “They overwhelmed four opponents, under-whelmed ten, and whelmed one.” But we’re talking about influence, and nothing has been more influential on the past two generations of sportswriters than the Boston Globe sports section in the 1980s. These talented sportswriters—particularly Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, and Will McDonough on the Patriots—refocused their work on the culture and sociology of sports and invented a new medium for their musings: the Sunday paper omnibus column. Gammons started the trend, but the others picked it up, and now you have to look hard for a sports section or website that doesn’t prominently feature such columns (hello, Bill Simmons).

In the mid-1980s, I particularly enjoyed Ryan’s basketball columns, which ranged from insider Celtics info to general ruminations on the state of the game. Ryan could be catty about players, most especially at the time Celtics backup center and garbage-time regular Greg Kite. But if Ryan called BYU grad Kite “the least talented player in the NBA” or once claimed, echoing The Beatles, that the fourth quarter of one Celtics blowout was played for “the benefit of Mr. Kite,” he also speculated that part of Kite’s real role might be to help racially balance the team (still a consideration for ownership, as Boston, a very white and racist city, was only a decade away from its school busing riots). So even in-jokes were linked to larger concerns, and Ryan and Gammons in particular cast themselves as sociologists of the games they covered.

The Various Formats of Bill James (1977-Present)
Another New England writerly phenomenon, Bill James, rounds out our list. The obvious points here are that he revolutionized baseball by helping to introduce statistical thinking to fans and front offices and by re-engineering sportswriting to focus less on game summaries and interviews with players than on abstract questions (e.g. do batting averages really tell us much about hitters’ overall effectiveness?). But he also changed the business of writing with statistics for popular audiences. James’s delineation of problems within manageable chunks of writing containing digestible portions of statistics were exemplary instances of catering to—and capitalizing on—his audience’s short attention spans and math anxieties. Would Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell exist without Bill James?

Along with his spiky intelligence, James’s innovative publishing strategies—writing annuals, using subscription models, and creating online platforms for his work—have always been one step ahead of the curve and have forged a surprisingly large audience for him. And he himself is a role model and object lesson for all obsessed sports fans. Once an outsider crank who produced essays during his night shift as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery, James wrote his way into a front office job with the Boston Red Sox.  Who else has changed thinking about a game and writing about sports so thoroughly recently? Why isn’t this man already enshrined in Cooperstown?

A Last Note on Influence
Cultural critics have often derided sportswriting as a willfully simplistic genre. But this critical line doesn’t address the ways in which sports-related imagery, metaphors, and ideas have saturated writings throughout history. At the very least, the works treated above have influenced other sportswritings, but let’s instead ask, more provocatively: What popular writings haven’t been influenced by sportswriting?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries from 2016

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This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved.  Happily for them all, their books live on.

C.D. Wright

C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas — she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” — but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.”  Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all.  About persons of small means.”  Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines:
AC or DC
You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.
In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry.  I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it.  I could not live without it.  Not in this world.”

Read: Several Millions Year in Reading contributors on Wright’s work.

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols — religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery.  Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery.  Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said.  In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it.  I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story.  Man is a storytelling animal by nature.  I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”

Read: An account of an in-person Eco sighting or our review of Confessions of a Young Novelist

Harper Lee

Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder.  No wonder.  To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land.  The love was enormous but not universal.  Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair.

In 2015, Lee’s lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist.  Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death.

Read: An account of a visit to Lee’s hometown; an analysis of Lee’s symbolism; or our review of Watchman.

Jim Harrison

When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid.

Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be.  No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way — all the way to the brim.

Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison.

Michael Herr

Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll absurdity.  That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.”  Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.”  A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing.

Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired.

James Alan McPherson

James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room.  After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014.

Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”

Read: A note on McPherson’s skill as a eulogist.

Edward Albee

George and Martha — sad, sad, sad.  It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.”  Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done.  I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”

Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really).

Gloria Naylor

With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty.  Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the “ebony phoenix,” she rose and was saved by her writing.

William Trevor

William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people — mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.”  Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site — and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him — until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new.

Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor.

And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order:

Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom.  Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize.

Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner’s considerable charms.

David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness.  A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration.  “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.”

Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island — only to be undone by some nasty habits.  He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor.  After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs.  After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost.  His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta.

Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci.

Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers.  he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans.  Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.”  He forgot to add: and lots of them.

Read: Conroy’s reaction to having his books banned.

Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever.

Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker.  The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story.  It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims — “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.”

Read: A Year in Reading on Jones.

Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész.

Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness.  Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.”  Wow.

Read: A detailed look at King’s work and life.

W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball.  His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.”

Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball.

Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.

Lurid Tales of Crime and Aristocratic Extravagance

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Hercules, as Mark Braude tells us in his sprightly history of Monte Carlo, was supposed to have stopped in Monaco en route to completing his 10th labor. This feat involved stealing a herd of cattle from Geryon, a six-limbed giant who was assisted in his shepherding duties by a two-headed hound, and ferrying the herd back to Greece as various gods, including Hera, sought to sabotage him. All told, he had better odds than the average visitor to a Monte Carlo casino, the wealth of which is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “derived wholly and directly from man’s refusal to accept the conclusion of mathematical proof.” Unlike even the most powerful and vindictive of Greek gods, the house always wins.

In Making of Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle, Braude describes how savvy impresarios actualized an illusion of their own devising: Monaco as a glamorous oasis in which “sun-kissed lives played out on clay courts and under canvas sails.” Monte Carlo was a creation of modernity and myth. Braude writes early on that his book is about “how we create places largely through the stories we tell about them, and about how places can in turn be made to suit those stories.” The original casino-resort, which began to take shape after Monaco legalized gambling in 1855, depended on new forms of mass advertising — color posters “featur[ing] fast men and fast women doing fast things in fast machines” — to entice visitors and new rail routes to deliver them to the casino entrance. But as Braude wryly notes, the real Monte Carlo only began to resemble this fantasy land of careless pleasure when “enough people had passed through and lost enough money.” To tweak the famous line from Field of Dreams, if you pretend to build it, they will come.

Braude outlines Monaco’s ancient history as a Phoenician, then Grecian, port and the importance of its fortress, constructed on its cliffs in 1215 to deter pirates. In 1297, an exiled Genoan clan, the Grimaldis, who disguised themselves as Franciscan monks, gained entrance to the fortress and slaughtered its guards. Monaco had its new ruling family. Skipping ahead several half a millennium, the Revolutions of 1848 left the Grimaldis hurting financially. Mentone and Roccabruna had declared their independence from the barren Monaco, taking with them 80 percent of the principality’s territory and, with it, considerable agricultural revenue. (A local saying: “I am Monaco upon a rock. I neither sow nor reap. But all the same I want to eat.”) The reigning monarch’s wife, Princess Caroline, heard of the profits generated by German spa and gaming towns such as Bad Homburg and urged her husband to legalize gambling. In 1855, the SBM, or Société Anonyme des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Étrangers à Monaco (the Sea Bathing and Foreigners’ Circle of Monaco Company) was created, its namers taking great pains to obfuscate its central mission: “to oversee the gambling concession in Monaco.”

There were some hiccups. Because Princess Caroline wanted the casino far from the palace, a site was chosen at Les Spélugues, a secluded network of grottoes:
Bandits were spotted there from time to time, holed up in the dark caves, coming out to rob anyone foolish enough to wander into that wild stretch of land, where the normal rules didn’t apply.
Should a foreigner wish to be robbed by these cave-dwelling brigands, or by the fledgling casino for that matter, he would have to endure a “nauseating three-hour carriage ride from Nice along the narrow Cornice mountain road, littered with highwaymen, followed by an hour’s walk down rocky hills.” No wonder then that Les Spélugues casino opened in February of 1863 “with little fanfare and to near-universal indifference.” In the early days of Monaco’s gaming industry, customers were so scarce that croupiers “install[ed] a telescope in their smoking spot so they could check every so often to see if any player came down the road, which sent them scurrying back to their posts.” Even a loafing employee can keep his eye on the prize.

Shortly after its opening, the rumor that a bank-busting gambler, Thomas Garcia, was headed to Monaco caused the SBM to panic. They reached out to François Blanc, the man who had turned Bad Homburg into an immensely profitable resort. François was a cardsharp-turned-stock trader who, operating with his twin brother Louis, made his first fortune through illegal machinations that seem almost quaint by today’s standards. Operating from Bordeaux, the Blanc brothers would bribe officials along the telegraph route from Paris to pass on coded messages about the day’s bond activities, thereby giving the provincial traders an edge. François then apprenticed in gaming management in the clubs, called enfers (hells), lining Paris’s seedy Palais Royale — the arcaded palace once belonging to the Duc D’Orléans. When François was approached by Monaco’s SBM to take over its gambling concession, he deployed a curious strategy to maintain the upper hand in negotiations: “He acted aloof and irritable, blaming his mood on a nagging boil that made it impossible for him to sit, due to its unfortunate placement.” Whether the boil was real, or he was merely bluffing, is a mystery the old gambler took to his grave.

Blanc was responsible for transforming the sleepy outpost into a world-renowned luxury resort. Thereafter Monaco became a kind of dual monarchy: “True power in Monaco dwelt not in the House of Grimaldi but in the House of Blanc.” Blanc urged Prince Charles to rename the resort to give it a loftier name, which he did, naturally, after himself: Les Spélugues became Monte Carlo. Blanc also exoticized Monaco, importing vegetation “from Africa and the Americas, turning this gambling town at the fringe of Europe away from the continent and toward the Mediterranean and the New World.” His well-trained staff kept out all the undesirables — criminals, prostitutes, French and Italian officers, priests — and enforced a strict dress code, though some superstitious players managed to sneak in their preferred talismans, including live pigs, cooked pigs, bat’s hearts, and turtles.

Blanc also mobilized the press, “pay[ing] newspapers to present whatever they wanted publicized within the guise of a regular article.” The SBM, Braude calculates, “spent…roughly one franc on publicity for every two francs spent on wages.” As Blanc and his successors would realize, the “tourist trade…was just another form of storytelling,” and Monte Carlo naturally produced great ones: lurid tales of crime; aristocratic extravagances; and “morality tales” involving “the ruin of the beautiful young bourgeoisie, or the seemingly contented patriarch, or the promising and dutiful officer.” (Stefan Zweig’s typically wonderful story, “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” tells of one such fall.)

Blanc peddled the myth that social mobility was only one roll away for anyone who dared chance it, all the while taking pains to emphasize the exclusivity of its clientele — “equal parts access and intimidation” is how Braude glosses this mix of populism and elitism. Braude is excellent on how Blanc used “culture in the service of commerce,” welcoming guests to enjoy free concerts at the first-come, first-seated Salle Garnier:
Such seemingly populist strategies actually lent the performances an air of exclusivity. No money changed hands, freeing some people to believe they’d come to the casino only out of a genuine love of music, and that by doing so they’d be accepted as equals among fellow amateurs of culture
Las Vegas has done away with that pretense. (Of Atlantic City, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.)

During the 1920s, Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes took up residence in Monte Carlo, “developing new works in the resort [that] built anticipation for their metropolitan debuts.” Monaco, jarringly, was now an incubator of avant-garde, if kitschy, culture. Braude devotes a chapter to a work written by Jean Cocteau and performed by the Ballets Russes, Le Train Bleu, named for the luxury train, equipped with a live eel tank, that ran from Calais to the Cote d’Azur. Coco Chanel dressed the dancers, Pablo Picasso supplied the overture curtain, and the “frothy score” was written by Darius Milhaud. Braude describes the confection spun out by these luminaries as a
…collection of moments, an onrushing flood of pleasures, of posing and of being posed for, of showing off one’s body and the things it could do, of getting into and out of dangerous and brief liaisons, of being entertained by the sight of something shiny and new rushing by and then running off to be distracted by the next novelty.
This is excellent, and strikes me as equally descriptive of Braude’s book, the strength of which lies in a similarly diverting “collection of moments” rather than a sustained narrative. Making Monte Carlo’s short, punchy chapters are usually broken into short, punchy sections with a self-contained anecdote or two, most of which are sufficiently contextualized. The only time Braude missteps is when he attempts to raise the stakes by adopting a sensationalist tone, for example setting up one chapter by intoning that “these same golden years were also marked by scandal, violence, and tragedy.” That may be true, but it is all so breezily recounted that the portentous set-up rings hollow.

The primary pleasure in Making Monte Carlo comes from watching the various eccentrics, lowlifes, high-rollers, and famous artists stroll in to take a seat at the table. Edvard Munch uses his government scholarship money, generously provided to help pay for art classes in Paris, though he did have the decency to produce a painting from the experience, “At the Roulette Tables in Monte Carlo.” Karl Marx, following the advice of his doctor, who espoused the benefits of “heliotherapy,” finds himself frequenting the same resort as sybaritic Russian royals who, “after growing bored with their caviar tasting, made a game of smashing champagne bottles” against the walls. Elsa Maxwell, the American publicity maven known for trotting out trained seals during the fish courses of her parties and traveling with 14 trunks for her press clippings and one hat box for a change of clothes, swoops in to reinvigorate Monte Carlo in the post-WWI years.

Francois Blanc was a rather colorful figure, but he pales in comparison to Sir Basil Zaharoff, an international arms dealer living in a Parisian apartment fortified by bullet-proof glass. Known as “The Merchant of Death” and fictionalized as Basil Bazarov in the popular comic Tintin, he wrested control of the SBM in 1923 for mysterious reasons, then refused ever to set foot in the casino. When one guests interrupts his sun-bathing session to ask for gambling advice, he curtly obliges: “Don’t play.”

Zaharoff brought in his friend Réné Léon, who was terrific at running the casino but had the unfortunate habit of occasionally running over pedestrians in his car. And then there’s this little bit of tax-shelter trivia: In a bid to ease tensions with his perpetually poor Monégasque subjects, who resented the influx of foreign casino workers, Prince Charles abolished the income tax in 1869, a move that “unknowingly set Monaco on the course to becoming the world’s first modern tax haven.” Perhaps we could call this trickle-up economics?

Braude aptly concludes with the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, a motor race that wound its way through the principality’s streets, an account chosen for thematic rather than dramatic reasons. The race was relatively uneventful, but Braude sees in the speedy cars circling round and round an “endless loop of self-regard” typifying Monte Carlo’s strenuous commitment to dizzying frivolity.

Goodbye Old Friends: On Selling My Books

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As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.

Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.

Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.

I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.

My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.

“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.

I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”

My idea when I opened an online bookstore at was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.

But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.

One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.

I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.

But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.

In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?

And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?

Image Credit: Pexels/Stanislav Kondratiev.

When Costner Was King: An Actor’s Rise and Fall (and Rise?)

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I’ve never really believed in God, but for a brief time in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kevin Costner came pretty close. Last weekend, Costner won an Emmy for his lead role in the History Channel miniseries, Hatfield & McCoys, his first major prize since the 1991 Academy Awards where he took home Best Director and Best Picture for Dances with Wolves. At the time, he seemed poised for many, many more.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, those titans of testosterone, Brian De Palma and David Mamet, teamed up to deliver a film adaptation the Camelot-era television series, The Untouchables. With marquee names like Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro in supporting roles, the lead role of famous lawman Eliot Ness was given to a then relatively unknown Costner. Barely into his 30s at the time, this film would kick off one of the most impressive runs in the history of American cinema. Just two months after The Untouchables, the Cold War thriller No Way Out debuted to both box office and wide critical success. On the popular online review database Rotten Tomatoes, No Way Out maintains an amazing 97 percent approval rate. To put that in perspective, that’s better than The Graduate (88 percent) and just shy of The Godfather, Part II (98 percent). Famously cut from The Big Chill in 1983, and more visible in a commercial that same year for Apple’s failed “Lisa” computer, by Labor Day 1987, Kevin Costner was a household name.

I had just turned seven when Costner broke big. In 1952, when my father was the same age, Gene Kelly was singing in the rain while Gary Cooper watched the clock in High Noon. Films like The Untouchables, No Way Out, and Bull Durham (released June 1988) were all a bit mature for my innocent eyes. But with 1989’s Field of Dreams, my Costner man crush truly began. I honestly don’t remember seeing it in the theater. It must have been VHS. Either way, I remember the feeling. That film, pie-in-the-sky as it may be, still gets me. For many years I told myself that I would eventually make the trip to Iowa and visit the real “Field of Dreams.” It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to Mecca. In September of 2002, just after my 22nd birthday, I led an impromptu road trip to Iowa with a couple of my female coworkers. None of us knew each other very well, but it was just the kind of spontaneous thing that makes being 22 so great. We ate cheap food, slept in questionable motels, and attempted to solve the mysteries of the universe through conversation and hipster music. I’m not certain if it was part of their original plan, but after the first couple of days, the girls talked me out of visiting “the field.” We opted for the urban pleasures (shopping) of Chicago. I might still be bitter about the whole experience had I not fallen in love with and subsequently married one of them. I tease her about it to this day. It’s still there. I could go. But for some reason that I can’t fully explain, I don’t need to anymore.

In October 1975, Bruce Springsteen famously appeared concurrently on the covers of Time and Newsweek. After two consecutive commercial failures and his career on the line, Born to Run made “Bruce Springsteen” possible. In much the same way, though with a bit more success behind him, Kevin Costner appeared on the June 26, 1989 cover of Time. Looking into the distance, his eyes on the proverbial prize, Costner’s face somehow lives up to the magazine’s hyperbolic headline, “The new American hero — smart, sexy, and on a roll.” Big words. Big expectations. Little more than a year later, Rolling Stone would declare him, “An American Classic.”

At the 62nd Academy Awards on March 26, 1990, Field of Dreams went 0 for 3, losing Best Score (The Little Mermaid), Best Adapted Screenplay (Driving Miss Daisy), and Best Picture (again, Driving Miss Daisy). At the 63rd Academy Awards, Costner faired a bit better. Dances with Wolves, his directorial debut, was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1990 ($424 million) behind Ghost, Home Alone, and Pretty Woman. It would go on to win seven Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. Say what you will in retrospect, but this was a BIG film, one of those event movies that everyone, even 5th grade kids (this one at least) were talking about. Think Titanic. Think The Dark Knight. Costner was able to do this with an often-subtitled Civil War-era film about Native Americans. No small feat.

1991. The Gulf War. Nirvana. Magic Johnson’s HIV. JFK. Half a decade after bursting onto the scene as do-gooder Eliot Ness, Costner returned to crusade for justice as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s controversial film on the events of November 22, 1963. That summer, with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Costner gave us a fun if forgettable summer adventure. But few were ready for the cultural phenomenon that was JFK. Even Seinfeld referenced the “Magic Bullet Theory.” Having recently re-watched this film for the first time in years, I was shocked at how well it’s held up over the past two decades. JFK was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1991, taking in more than $200 million. For a 189-minute film about conspiracy theories and legal minutia, this is utterly amazing. Much of the success can be chalked up to the buzz and controversy, but my money’s on Costner. By this point, he’d crossed that invisible line of trust with the general public. Every now and then, we (Americans) make a collective silent decision about an actor/actress. We love them. We like them. They’re one of us. We’ll follow their lead. Jimmy Stewart. Tom Hanks. Kevin Costner. Well, almost. Even though his streak wasn’t completely over, I feel that JFK marks the end of Costner’s golden age. His next release, 1992’s The Bodyguard, was a huge hit, but more for its soundtrack than anything else. Perhaps sensing a change, Costner took on his first villain/anti-hero role in Clint Eastwood’s criminally underrated 1993 film, A Perfect World. Playing an escaped convict who befriends a young boy, Costner finally gets to show his full range. He’d been the everyman (The Untouchables, Field of Dreams), the charismatic liar (No Way Out), and the sexy rebel (Bull Durham). But with this little movie, shot on the back roads of rural Texas, Costner is able to mix those ingredients together for something new. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen it since.

The Golden Raspberry Award or “Razzie” as it’s better known, is an annual award for the worst in movies, the polar opposite of the Oscars. In 1991, Kevin Costner was awarded the Razzie for “Worst Actor” in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was his first nomination and first win. No big deal. The movie made a ton of money. Many great and well-respected actors have had the (dis)honor of taking home a Razzie or two. It happens. But Kevin Costner, through bad luck, bad choices, or a combination of the two, has since received an additional six Razzie nominations for “Worst Actor,” winning twice for Wyatt Earp (1994) and The Postman (1997).

The debacle that was Waterworld has been written and talked about ad nauseum. I have nothing to contribute to the conversation other than to say that it wasn’t as bad as everyone said it would be and it made more money than was expected. As for The Postman? That one will forever be in the WTF file. I’m 32 now. I’m sad to say that for more than half of my life, I’ve been living in a post-Costner world. For many years I held out hope that he would return to form.  There were moments. Tin Cup had a Bull Durham-esque appeal. And Costner, who seems to naturally take himself way too seriously, is very appealing when he lightens up and goofs around. Open Range was a good western. Not a great one, but pretty damn good.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, Costner seemed ready for a vibrant third act. “I don’t give up. I’m a plodder. People come and go, but I stay the course.” Who knows, with the success of Hatfields & McCoys, perhaps some of the sparkle is returning to Costner’s star. Next summer he plays Clark Kent’s father in the hotly anticipated reboot, Man of Steel. But much of the audience, many born in the post-Waterworld era, will have no idea that for a brief but glorious period in my formative years, Kevin Costner was, at least cinematically speaking, Superman himself.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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